Creativity is not something that drops out of the sky and hits you in the head. It seems that way, sure, but that feeling you’re experiencing – that eureka moment – is simply the crystallization of things you have been mulling over in your head for a long time. Your brain has had a bunch of puzzle pieces and has been twisting them this way and that and then, all of a sudden, you see how they fit. Boom – a fully realized idea.
If you’re an author, one of the things you are constantly (constantly) asked is “where do you get your ideas.” It’s a hard question to answer, and most authors produce a variety of half-true or vague answers. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure there is one precise answer to this question. You may as well ask “why are you like this?” or “where do you get your dreams from” – the true answer is long, complicated, and uncertain. I think, in the end, we get our ideas just by letting our mind wander – by daydreaming. I don’t think authors are alone in this, either.
Daydreaming is an essential part of being creative, I think. You need time to do it, you need to do it often, and if you don’t do it, ideas become harder to come by and less interesting. The problem with this need, however, is just how little society values the act of daydreaming. If somebody sees you sitting still, staring into space, odds are they’re going to give you something to do. They’re going to pull you out of that head-space where you are building that “eureka moment.” One of the challenges of being a person who tries to use their creativity to make a living is the jealous defense of that state of mind that seems so useless but is, in actuality, so essential. You can, very easily, get to the point where you feel guilty for “wasting” your time. That’s not good.
Some things I struggle with that negatively affect my ability to daydream:
I spend entirely too much time on Facebook. I need to learn to put that stupid smartphone down (I hate those things and yet I’m addicted to them like everyone else). I need to look out at the world actually around me and let my thoughts drift. Why bother engaging in political arguments when nobody has the least intention of changing their minds? Does the world really need to see that clever meme and do I need to be the one to deliver it? No. I need to step back – my thoughts are often too noisy with the roar of the Internet.
I’ve got a lot of things going on in my life, all at the same time. Some of them are endeavors that encourage creativity, but most of them just take up head space. Now, as it happens, I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing my work and home life away from my daydreaming (for this reason I’m pretty atrocious at remembering to do household chores or keeping things like recipes or grocery lists in my head), but still there isn’t much call for me to be quite as busy as I am. I could cut back on certain non-essentials (some gaming, for instance) and probably be better off.
Will I, though? Hmmm…let’s see some of the other categories.
Not Enough Books!
One of the colossal ironies of being a college professor and writer is that you love reading and yet, suddenly, you find yourself with very little time to actually read for pleasure. I mean, I do read – I read tons and tons of student material every year and I re-read just about everything I teach each and every semester. This adds up to the word-count equivalent of about twenty to twenty-five novels a year. I do typically wind up reading another 7-10 novels per year on top of that, but basically about 70% of my reading is either student work or books I’ve read several times before. I need to make a concerted effort to read more for pleasure – to read more widely, too – because nothing gets a mind going like a good book.
Permit Myself the Time
Lastly, and probably most importantly, I need to stop feeling guilty when I sit back and let my mind wander. I need to embrace this process and not apologize for it. This is hard, because there are so many other things that I could be doing that are considered more “constructive.” I need to tell myself that daydreaming is constructive also. Because it is! It builds the worlds and ideas that make me successful as a writer, as a teacher, and happy as a person – it is worthwhile energy. Hell, all of us should do this more often.
I’ve restricted my comments here to myself, since I am reluctant to make assumptions about other people (maybe none of these things constitute a problem for you), but I do suspect that I am not alone. I’m here to tell you, from one dreamer to another, that gazing off into space and imagining things is okay. Now, get out there and look like you’re wasting time! Who cares what they think -both you and I know what’s really happening.
Just don’t miss your stop on the train. That sucks.
Like a lot of writers, I’m really good at doing lots of work on projects that have nothing to do with the project I’m supposed to be working on. It’s a kind of constructive procrastination, I guess, and it has its uses. Lately, while my short story projects are a bit stalled and the novel I’m working on plods along at a moderate pace, I’ve been spending entirely too much time fleshing out the land of Nyxos, a setting for future stories, novels, etc..
The primary, operative element of information about Nyxos is that all the power in this world, all the sorcerous might and arcane ability, finds its genesis in dreams. Dreamstuff can be made into physical objects; dreams can be spied upon, invaded, and even taxed. Some species live more in dreams than they do in ‘reality’ and, indeed, the line between the two is often held into question. A lot of this is really rough, mind you, but that’s the gist of it.
The primary villain in the world is the Oneirarch, the Dream Tyrant, who ‘taxes’ the dreams of his subjects to both keep them in line and to build his own power. He is something out of a nightmare – not seen, but glimpsed in the corners of nightmares. He is a presence felt, but not known. His priests maintain a fleet of dreamships – powerful vessels of pure dreamstuff that sail the skies of Nyxos, imposing the Onierarch’s will through the terrifying violence of nightmares-made-real.
But as I develop these concepts, I’m left with the question: Of what shape should the dreamworld take? The closest analog in fantasy literature I know of is Tel’aran’rhiod, which is from Jordan’s Wheel of Time – a world of dreams that is unified into a coherent, if malleable, landscape that loosely mirrors the real world. This is a kind of ‘universalist’ approach to dreams (i.e. we all visit the same dreamworld while we dream, we just lack the skills to navigate it). On the other end of the spectrum we have the world of dreams as set out by Inception, wherein the dreamworld is not a universal landscape but rather an idiosyncratic construction of an individual’s subconscious. Each dreamer is unique, each dream has its own unique foibles, and each is a reflection of individual will rather than collective belief.
To some extent, this seems to find us floating between the poles of none other than Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. These two giants of psychoanalysis explored the importance of dreams in our psychological landscape, and while they share many of the same ideas, there are key differences. The most significant, perhaps, is the fact that Jung sees dreams as plugged into a kind of collective subconscious – an amalgam of myth and religious folklore that permeated the subconscious of all people and was shared between them. This, of course, is more in line with Tel’aran’rhiod than the dreamscapes of Inception. Freud, meanwhile, sees dreams as reflections of problems felt by the dreamer in the waking world (and these problems he saw as frequently sexual in nature). Jung agrees with his former teacher to a point (i.e. that dreams reflect waking problems), but takes it one step further to insist that the dream isn’t mere wish-fulfillment caused by some conscious issue in need of resolution, but is itself an entity worthy of independent consideration. To paraphrase this paper by Brlizg on the matter, whereas Freud might wonder what caused a dream and how to fix it, Jung wondered what the dream itself meant on its own terms.
This connection between dreams and the real world and the connection between one person’s dreams and another’s is something worthy of personal reflection as well as a direction for fantastic extrapolation. It’s something I’m going to need to study at greater length, at any rate, before Nyxos is ready to go.
Now, back to more pressing writing projects.
It is fashionable to complain about snow. We don’t like shoveling it, we don’t like driving in it, we don’t like how much we get (no matter how much or how little that is), we don’t like where it falls, or the things we’re asked to do in it, or how long it makes everything take. We adults seem to spend a lot of time hating it.
What fools we are.
Snow is something enchanted. It changes the whole world, flake by flake, degree by degree, until we emerge from our hiding places and find ourselves somewhere new and clean and fresh. The drab ordinariness of our daily world is now blanketed in silence and light, glowing beneath an invisible sun. You breathe deep, and the air sears your lungs with its chilly clarity. It’s like waking up from a bad dream and letting all the heavy, sticky violence of your nightmare fall away. There ‘s just you, alone, calm and surrounded by the quiet beauty of a new world.
It is no accident to my mind that CS Lewis had Lucy stumble through the wardrobe and into a Narnia locked in eternal winter. There seems nothing else in nature that captures the mystery and enchantment of life than a wood cloaked in shimmering ice. When I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time, I was standing there with Lucy, my breath catching at the sight of the lamppost. I could feel the cold, clean air across my knuckles; I felt the encroaching chill as it ate its way through my sneakers. I could smell the stillness of the place. I wanted to know where that forest led. I wanted to hear the crunch of it beneath my feet. For a child, snow is adventure and wonder and magic.
As we grow older, our practical selves wage a slow, steady war against that part of us that glories in the simple pleasures of a snow-covered field. Just as the Pevensies eventually grew too old to come to Narnia, we also lose some part of ourselves. We see snow as the obstacle, the inconvenience. We spend all our time moving it and cursing it and wishing it would melt, but we spend almost no time looking at it. Tasting it. Standing stone-still on our front steps, breathing deeply, and listening to how the snow has made our noisy, bustling, stressful adult world quiet and slow. This is a gift, friends. It is an opportunity to dream of far-off places and worlds reborn. It is the very stuff of fantasy.
Take heed, friends. Stop. Listen. Breathe.
I have always been a vivid dreamer. My dreams are almost never mundane; wild stuff happens. I remember once, while I was in high school, I had a dream I was travelling to a foreign city with my father where we were going to investigate these old ruins. There I and our lovely guide wound up fighting robotic tin soldiers through the ruins of a subterranean carnival. This kind of dream is pretty much par for the course for me.
The last few years I realized I hadn’t been remembering my dreams as often. I still had them, but they never stuck in my head the way they used to. I should have probably kept a dream journal, but I was never so organized as that. Anyway, just last week my wife and I got a new bed.
I and my wife are nestled in the belly of some kind of flying vessel that seems formless and asymmetrical, like a storm cloud. It is a moonless night and we are coasting silently down a canyon edged by jagged peaks of black, dead rock. We are both quiet, like submarine crews waiting for their torpedoes to hit. Over us, through the hazy, film-like windows, we watch an even larger stormcloud vessel pass. It is so close to us I can peer through its portholes. Inside is a great room lit by blazing iron braziers. It has a single door – broad, circular, and fashioned from dull, dented steel. I get the sense that it, the ship, is looking for us. We evade it.
Then, surprise! We’ve forgotten something. I peer through the forward porthole to see we are careening towards a wall of midnight stone and iron spears. The gate is closed – pull up! Pull up! We pilot by instinct, just clearing the battlements. There, arrayed beneath us, are a forest of ballistae, loaded and ready. Barbed bolts two yards long sail into the air after us, fired by crews we can scarcely make out. We dive, we roll, we weave as the shots shower around us, piloting our stormcloud ship gracefully to safety. Then I wake up.
This has set my mind rolling. A story is being hashed out of it, even now. I’ve also got a pair of novels to submit, agents to query, a short story to edit and re-submit somewhere, and loads of grading and reading and all the stuff that has to do with being alive, married, and having a child and a dog. You will forgive me, readers, if this is my only post this week. The hard work of building dreams into something hard and dark calls to me. I must answer.
See you next Monday.